Paul and the women at Philippi—2

Paul's converts in Philippi illustrate the truth that the gospel knows no limitations of class or social standing. Of his converts, Lydia was from the highest stratum and a slave girl from the lowest stratum of society.

Ronald Springett is an associate professor of religion at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

The second woman in Paul's experience at Philippi was as different from the first as day from night. Lydia, Paul's first recorded European convert, was an independent businesswoman of honorable character and godly piety. The second woman was an unfortunate, demon-possessed slave girl exploited by her owners for their own material profit. We do not know her name; she is described simply as a slave girl. Paul would not have looked down upon her because of her social status; he always applied the Christian principle he enunciated later in Colossians 3:11, "Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, a slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all." *

Society, of course, saw things differently. In Paul's day a slave girl could be rented out as a prostitute or a wet nurse. Any talent or mental proclivity, or lack of it, could be exploited by the owner for his amusement or profit. Lacking special training, slaves could be used as labor. They were often looked upon simply as human tools and nothing more, their value dependent upon physical condition, talents, training, and disposition.

This particular slave girl was valuable. She had a "spirit of divination" (Acts 16:16, R.S.V.),* or a "spirit by which she predicted the future" (N.I.V.).f These renderings translate a text that reads literally "having a spirit of a python." Those who made a business of divination were watchful for slaves who manifested qualities, aptitudes, or even infirmities, which might prove advantageous to them, and avidly sought to gain possession of such individuals. Those who, like this young girl, possessed a "spirit of divination" were rare, and their value correspondingly high. The fact that she had more than one owner may be evidence that the price placed on her was too great to be carried by a single person or that no single owner was prepared to risk such a large investment.

The girl was most likely demented, epileptic, or emotionally unstable. Demon possession is often associated with such maladies in the gospels (see Matt. 17:14-20). She is referred to by Luke as a "python" because of her association with oracle giving. The oracle at Delphi in Greece was reputedly guarded by a serpent or dragon, and the oracles supposedly coming from this python were regarded as inspired. A young maiden (in later times an elderly matron) transmitted these inspired oracles in a state of frenzy or in ecstatic utterance. These mental states may have been artificially induced by various mushroom concoctions, the chewing of fresh bay leaves, or Apollo's plant. (Apollo, in Greek mythology, killed the serpent and thus became the successor to the serpent's oracular power.) Questions were put to the Pythian prophetess by a male prophet who then interpreted her utterances, usually into verse.

The oracles given were frequently ambiguous and, therefore, subject to more than one interpretation, two interpretations often being quite contrary. So it was when King Croesus of Lydia (c. 560 B.C.) sent a delegation to Delphi to question the Pythian prophetess: "Shall Croesus send an army against the Persians?" The answer from the oracle: "If he should send an army against the Persians, he will destroy a great empire." Croesus assumed this meant he would destroy the Persian empire; as it turned out, it was his own empire that fell.

The message of this slave girl, as recorded in Scripture, was also extremely ambiguous. "These men are servants [slaves] of the Most High God" (verse 17). In those days when there were "gods many, and lords many" the expression Most High God could have been applied to any of the deities worshiped. It could be used of Jehovah even in the mouths of demons (see Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28). This is the way Paul and his companions would no doubt have understood it, for they believed in one God. Non-Jews, however, could and usually did, under stand the term in a relative sense. The "Most High God" to them was the highest god among many others. The magical papyri from this period contain prayers and incantations to numerous deities and address many as "the most high god." This expression was applied to Egyptian and Greek gods as well as Jehovah. In the minds of non-Jews, the most high god was the head of the pantheon, not the only God.

The second part of the message of this possessed woman announced that Paul and his companions "proclaim to you the way of salvation." It is true that Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Indeed, the very first name for the religion of Jesus after His ascension was simply, "the Way" (see Acts 9:2; 22:4). But in a society swarming with religions of every conceivable persuasion and with an almost unimaginable variety of liturgies and rites, each promising to be the "way of salvation," this phrase was so ambiguous as to be virtually meaningless.

The world at this time craved for the way of salvation interpreted as healing either of body or soul and frequently both. Although more permanent spiritual concepts were not entirely ruled out, salvation was primarily viewed by the pagans as safety, health, and prosperity. Christianity offered them what they were praying for, but also took the opportunity of providing something beyond what they dared to ask or think possible; it met the craving for both a full present life and for a real, enduring spiritual salvation.

Thus both Christianity and the mystery religions claimed to teach the "way of salvation" or the "Way." But outside Christianity, salvation was largely material in its connotation and was obtained by the performance of religious duties (vows and prayers), by magic rites, or even by imperial grant. Pagan "salvation" was not all inclusive; it could mean as little as mere "safety."

So there was an element of truth in the slave girl's statements. But they were made in such a way as to say nothing distinctively Christian. There was a real possibility that the apostles' message would be misunderstood by those who heard the pronouncements of this girl mixing truth and error. In addition, there was the danger that the medium would be construed as the message.

The authority of the Delphi oracle was waning considerably at this time, but the involuntary utterance of this possessed woman would still be regarded as the voice of the god by many in Philippi. She might not have been considered the authoritative voice of Delphi, yet her association with the term python meant that she was at least considered to be one whose utterance about the future was inspired. The term was later used in the sense of a ventriloquist. But even this usage carried with it the idea that her utterances were beyond her own conscious control.

After taking residence with Lydia, the apostles frequented the place of prayer at the riverside to continue their contacts and no doubt to teach others. One day as the apostles were making their way to their usual place of prayer, this girl began to follow and to cry out after them. This performance was kept up for many days (verse 18). At last, Paul was moved by the Spirit to remove this demonic influence. Her disturbed and divided consciousness, so characteristic of the possessed, Paul could no longer tolerate. Turning to the girl, he addressed the evil spirit, commanding it in the name of Jesus to come out of her. Immediately the spirit left her. Of course, with the spirit went any hope of gain on the part of her owners, and the record shows that Paul's second Philippian convert, in contrast to the first, caused him much personal distress and discomfort.

The entire account illustrates the point that the gospel knows no limitations of class or social standing. In these two converts, Paul brings to the Lord individuals from the highest and the lowest strata of society. It is not always those who we think are most likely to accept the gospel that eventually do espouse it. Both a busy woman involved in a merchant enterprise and a possessed slave girl might be judged by human reasoning as the least likely to be reached. Yet, they were Paul's first two converts.

Demon possession such as Paul encountered in the Philippian slave girl may not be as prevalent today as then. In the Western world, the powers of evil do not usually work directly in relationship with idolatry as in the religions of the ancient world. But they are working still in other ways to keep mankind in bondage and at a distance from God. Today we consider ourselves far removed from the simplistic, superstitious piety of the ancient world; our sophisticated superiority to this outmoded world view is considered self-evident. We frequently make the mistake, however, of thinking that simply because we reject the spirits and idols of a bygone age, we are thereby immune from descending into the same social, ethical, and moral quagmire in which the ancients found themselves. This is a serious error. The god of this world tailors his spirits to suit the spirit of the age. Just as Paul became extremely unpopular in Philippi because he did not conform to the spirit of the times, so the Christian evangelist today may be unwelcome because he does not fit the current trend. Popular mores, methods, fashions, attitudes, philosophies, and heroes may all have vested interests behind them. Consequently, the courageous Christian evangelist may find himself in for a bit of trouble when he confronts them with the. careful scrutiny of the gospel message.

Paul was also aware that the spirit of the age may manifest itself in the church, masquerading as something religious, worthwhile, and wholesome. Indeed, in our eagerness to get across the message of Christ we must be constantly on guard that we not use those methods and principles identified with the spirit of the age lest we unwittingly show that we have really been converted to its attitudes and way of doing things. A recent experience illustrated this point for me. While watching a group of young people witnessing, I noticed the upbeat tunes and lyrics of their songs. Their facial expressions and body language were also very much those of the contemporary scene. Some of my younger friends informed me that the group was aping the gestures of certain TV stars. The consensus of opinion was that it was a good performance, the person on the left doing better than the one in the center who they thought was trying to copy the style of a particular well-known singer. Although I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of the witnessing group, their peers had been attracted to something quite different from what the group intended.

The subtle nuances of our conversation, demeanor, and life style can speak volumes to the new observer. The methods and models we follow in presenting the truth may come across louder and clearer to the prospective convert than the truth couched in them. If we try to win people to the Lord with the methods of the world about us, then we can expect that the church will eventually evolve into a church that worships the world in which it finds itself. Our medium will have been mistaken for our message.

Paul might have been tempted to let the demon-possessed woman continue to advertise his evangelistic efforts in Philippi. After all, the pagans would listen to her and might be attracted to the Lord and brought into the church. She was speaking the truth, wasn't she? But Paul recognized the source of the remarks as the spirit of the age and with respect to it his policy was that expressed to another European congregation:

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, under handed ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:1-5).


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Ronald Springett is an associate professor of religion at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

August 1983

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